The Wallflower is the Satanic speed metal of shojo anime. It’s an exercise in gleefully wretched audience-assaulting excess on every possible front, just like one of director Shinichiro Watanabe’s most infamous earlier productions,Excel Saga. Then again, Excel Saga was adapted from one of the three or four most deranged manga ever created (which is now a personal favorite of mine), so he was simply paying proper homage to the source material. Here, I haven’t read the source manga, so I’m not sure if our beloved Nabeshin is paying homage or simply taking the basic premise and going bananas with it like a college kid breaking in his first credit card. Maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s hilarious either way.
Truth be told, I really didn’t want to watch this series at first, if only because I knew nothing about it or how it was played off. The four pretty boys on the cover reminded me way too much of the androgi-cutie bishonen boys of Princess Princess, a series I hated so much I felt annoyed just being in the same room with a copy of it. Then I ended up seeing the trailer for The Wallflower at ADV’s panel at NYAF 2008, right before I was to go home and actually watch it, and I laughed so hard at that trailer I almost choked on my own tongue (something I’m prone to doing, I fear). Maybe the disc itself should come with a warning label about that.
Strip the premise down to its basics and you have the hoariest story imaginable, which I suspect is exactly the idea — take a clichéd premise and stand it on its head. Four gorgeous young men have shacked up with a filthy-rich society lady as a rent dodge, but one day she puts her foot down and makes a demand: Either educate her niece Sunako in the ways of being a lady, or start coughing up a pro-rated rent that’ll put them into hock for several lifetimes over. Not wanting to end up in the poorhouse, and always happy to pass on their makeup and couture tips, the four happily agree.
It takes them about twelve seconds to realize they’ve made a horrible mistake. Sunako comes off like the most extreme possible version of the creepy-girl Ally Sheedy character from the movie The Breakfast Club. She watches horror movie marathons, decorates her room with grotesque anatomical models, exudes an aura of evil that kills flowers in a six-foot radius, hides her face behind a shower curtain of ungroomed bangs and has the worst taste in clothing. All she has to do is glance at anything beautiful — like, say, her four handsome hosts — and her nose explodes in a gush of blood. And no, she has absolutely no intentions of being turned into a “proper lady,” no matter how much rent is hanging in the balance.
Most of the show is a tug-of-wills between Sunako and the four — too-cute Yukinoko, confrontatory Ranmaru, materialistic Kyohei, and Takenaga the seducer. They’re hellbent on making her into something worthy of the name “woman,” while she’s hellbent on locking herself in her room and doing as little as humanly possible. There’s a reason for all that, as you can imagine: she bent over backwards to draw the attention of a classmate and got snubbed with the words “I hate ugly girls!” And ever since then she’s been living out a self-fulfilling prophecy, even though after you scrub out her pores and give her a decent haircut she’s … actually … quite lovely.
No, her problem isn’t her looks — it’s her attitude, and there’s no quick fix for that. But there are interim steps. The boys discover she’s actually a terrific cook (which they desperately need, since they survive mostly on take-out and convenience-store instant meals), and soon she has a place, however tentative, in the household. But then there’s the whole rest of the world to deal with, something which poses no end of difficulty each time Sunako has to leave the house and interact with someone who’s not one of the boys. A school cultural festival explodes into a violent free-for-all; a photography session originally intended for Sunako ends with her getting jilted in favor of the boys. And so on.
That said, every time something like that happens, both Sunako and the boys see something of value in the other that they didn’t before. In her case, she realizes each of them isn’t just all looks and no substance — they’ve each been through a few bruises of their own, and know her better than she might think. And, likewise, they realize that as unpleasant as she can be, she’s also no phony. She likes what she likes, hates what she hates, and doesn’t hide it from anyone — and when she’s surrounded by phonies and social climbers of all stripes, including the boys, that makes her sincerity (for what it is) all the more true.
This surfeit of attitude Sunako has is the most interesting of the bunch, if only by default. The four boys come off as heavily interchangeable, at least at first, but over time settle down and develop at least provisionally distinct personalities. That said, Sunako absolutely and shamelessly steals every single scene she’s in. Everything from her gutting a fish (with her laughing and slashing maniacally and decorating the walls with gore) to doing something as trivial as taking a drink is depicted, animated and acted with such absolute creative abandon that you fear for the safety of the production team — and especially the voice actors, who must have wrecked their collective throats performing this thing at the total level of frenzy required. (I can only imagine what the outtakes for this show were like.)
The relentless chain-gun pace of the humor, the gag-manga character designs (half the time people are just depicted as near-featureless blobs), the riot of improbable plot turns — Wallflower is a deranged (and deranging) experience that’s perhaps best when interleaved an episode at a time with other, less aggressively insane shows. But oh, what an experience. Put it this way: if you didn’t wince when I mentioned Excel Saga, you’re probably already breaking out your credit card. And even if you did wince …